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Microsoft System Center 2012 R2: Worth The Upgrade?

Microsoft System Center 2012 R2: Worth The Upgrade?

Get real insight into the latest version of Microsoft System Center 2012 R2. See how System Center 2012 R2 enables the Microsoft Cloud OS and unifies management -- and see if it's worth the upgrade.

The upgrade to the R2 version of Microsoft's enterprise-level monitoring, management and configuration product, Windows System Center 2012, was released to the public the same week as Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2. The flagship management suite went GA on October 18th and is available in two versions, System Center 2012 R2 Datacenter, and System Center 2012 R2 Standard.

Microsoft bills System Center 2012 R2 as a way to provide, "unified management across on-premises, service provider and Azure thereby enabling the Microsoft Cloud OS." As an R2 release, there are some added functions, new features, and of course, stability and process improvements, but understanding Microsoft's own description offers a real insight into the latest version of Microsoft System Center 2012 R2.

System Center is a complex collection of various management products. Included in the R2 version, as in all versions, are an updated App Controller, Configuration Manager, Data Protection Manager, Operations Manager, Service Manager, and Virtual Machine Manager (VMM).

Another main component for those who take advantage of high-level automation is Orchestrator, which in the R2 version, gets several new in-box runbooks and service templates.

MORE: What is Microsoft Cloud OS?

Windows Server 2012 R2 And Windows 8.1 Support

More than anything else, the most important new feature of Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 is to provide, built-in, out of box support for the company's latest products. Chief among these comes support for Windows Server 2012 R2 and the Windows 8.1 desktop operating system.

Also, any Microsoft server applications sporting a 2012 or 2013 version number (such as Sharepoint 2013) will find full support in this latest version of System Center if it wasn't already present in SP1. Older versions of System Center can offer support for the latest Microsoft products but that requires manually bolting on updates. In fact, Microsoft had 31 management packs re-released with R2.

This native support for newer versions is particularly important for Windows Server 2012 as some of its latest and greatest functionality ties directly to the company's so-called Cloud OS.

Businesses not utilizing Microsoft's most recent software, or those not making heavy use of cloud-based services, particularly Microsoft's Azure services, have no need to run out and upgrade to the R2 version. While there are some new, useful features and changes, the vast majority are only necessary to support new Server 2012 functionality, or for very large complex environments that have been bumping up against the "maximums" of System Center 2012 SP1.

Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 And The Cloud OS

Microsoft's inroads into corporate America's computing started on the desktop and progressed into the data center. Along the way, the company's bread and butter has been the operating system installed on computers and servers, and then leveraging that position and expertise to also capture numerous installations of server applications ranging from its Exchange messaging system to SQL Server and more. However, while this model still dominates corporate IT, Microsoft recognized that the cloud computing model offers many advantages and is the future for many businesses. Since then, the company has worked to stretch its offerings out to the cloud.

Microsoft recently hatched the Cloud OS concept as a way to link the new trend of corporate cloud computing to the company's long standing prowess in corporate operating systems. There is no actual Cloud OS that you can buy. In fact, Microsoft is now referring to the "Cloud OS vision" in recent publications.

The Cloud OS vision is the company's ultimate goal to provide operating systems, their accompanying server products and tools not just in the traditional corporate data center, but across both third-party virtual servers and cloud service providers (CSPs), and Microsoft's own Windows Azure cloud offering. In practice, starting with these new R2 versions, you can install Windows Server 2012 on regular servers in your own data center (on-premise), use a CSP such as Amazon's EC2 offering, or Microsoft's own Windows Azure, and any combination thereof.

Then, you can manage all your environment from one console in System Center 2012 R2, which, can then also be installed in your own data center, on Azure or on an instance in a third-party CSP.

MORE: System Center 2012 Data Protection Manager
MORE: System Center 2012 Operations Manager
MORE: System Center 2012 Configuration Manager
MORE: System Center 2012 Endpoint Protection

But, being flexible enough to monitor across local and cloud style installations isn't good enough. To truly be able to monitor and manage across the enterprise, Microsoft recognized that a Microsoft only approach wouldn't cover it. One of the major themes in this latest version of System Center 2012 is Microsoft's current best effort to cover more of those non-Microsoft areas.

For example, System Center 2012 R2 expands the flavors of third-party systems supported. For example, Operations Manager now sports management packs for Linux, Oracle Solaris, HP-UX, and IBM AIX, and those monitoring agents are now based on Open Management Infrastructure (OMI). It also now offers support for Dynamic Memory on Linux systems.

In addition, multi-hypervisor virtualization management includes not only updates to support the latest version of Hyper-V (included in Server 2012 R2) but also VMware and Citrix. The goal for this release, and future releases, is to be able to provision, manage, configure, monitor and automate all from a single unified view from within System Center.

Numerous third-party management packs provide the ability to monitor and manage almost anything the provider allows. For example, the AWS Management Pack for Microsoft System Center allows for direct monitoring of instances running on Amazon Web Services.

Microsoft's goal is a single unified view regardless of vendor, local installation, or cloud-based. That vision isn't realized for all areas, but in the areas where it works, it is pretty convenient. Interestingly, enough, more and more views seem to be making their way into App Controller, perhaps an indicator of how virtualization ends up making applications the only thing left that is "real."

Of course, the strength of System Center has always been the ability to customize the view for each particular administrator's responsibility. That continues and additional web-based interfaces have been extended to allow for more management when away from the home desk.

Microsoft Does Microsoft Best

All the best stuff still happens between Microsoft-only pieces.

For example, System Center 2012 R2 offers automatic upgrades for managed Server 2012 to Server 2012 R2 systems. Then, the Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) component offers cross-version Live Migration of Hyper-V virtual machines. The end result is that you can automatically upgrades your Windows Servers to the R2 version, then Live Migrate your running VMs to those upgraded servers, resulting in a zero downtime migration of your VMs to the latest version of Windows Server. There is no similar functionality for VMware or Citrix, no matter where they are installed.

Figure 1: VMM Fabric Storage ConsoleFigure 1: VMM Fabric Storage Console

Similarly, an interesting feature of App Controller in System Center 2012 R2 allows administrators to migrate applications from on-premise Windows servers to Azure servers, and then manage both the application and its VM from within App Controller, all with a unified view. Thus, the administrator loses no control or functionality by moving the application from a local datacenter server to a cloud-based Azure server.

Operations Manager gets the cloud love as well. The Azure management pack provides the functionality to monitor Azure instances and VMs from within the Operations Manager console rather than through the Azure dashboard. This is also true of Microsoft server applications such as Exchange and SQL Server. However, non-Microsoft offerings still take plugins or management packs to accomplish the same. For example, VMware vSphere monitoring is offered via a third-party management pack.

For developers using Microsoft's Visual Studio, there are new alerts and deeper, code-level monitoring built on top of Intelli-trace from the SP1 release. In addition, there are now improved diagnostics for .NET and Java applications.

For environments where management runs an in-house billing, or chargeback, model, System Center allows for a self-service model via a service catalog. Provisioning is built and monitored within System Center, providing both reporting and metering so that departments and groups can be properly billed by IT for resources used.

Should You Upgrade?

System Center 2012 R2 includes numerous other miscellaneous added features and enhancements.

The Virtual Machine Management component now allows for a single VMM server to support up to 1,000 hosts and 25,000 virtual machines. The VMM component also now has a Fabric Health Dashboard for monitoring private clouds and their fabric. In addition, a management pack allows for monitoring and management of top-of-rack switches. Network Discovery will now work with Ipv6 as input.

There is full monitoring and management both of the newer Storage Spaces as well as physical SAN storage setups, also dynamic VHDX resize and running VM snapshots. Microsoft is also extends the abilities for software-defined networking, perhaps as a way to cut the network hardware providers out of the management mix. The Data Protection Manager adds the ability to provide file level backups for Linux virtual machines and the ability to restore full Linux virtual machines.

Last but not least, System Center 2012 R2 continues the march toward total PowerShell integration. Tons of new cmdlets are available to tackle new features and functions, as well as picking up any of those that may have been missed last time around.

Is System Center 2012 R2 Worth An Upgrade?

Windows System Center 2012 R2 is another step in Microsoft's march to be just as relevant in the cloud computing space as it is in the standard corporate IT data center.  While there are numerous improvements, customers already running a functional System Center installation have no reason to rush to upgrade.

Customers making substantial installations of either Windows 8.1 or Windows Server 2012 R2 in the near future will find it easier to make the move to the R2 version of System Center rather than trying to handle all of the additional management packs and rollups, especially for environments trying to push the upper limits of Server 2012 R2's capabilities.

Environments making use of Microsoft's Windows Azure service will also benefit from the tighter integration and capabilities offered by System Center 2012 R2.

For places happily running Windows 7 (or XP still?), Server 2008 or even the SP1 version of Server 2012, without much current cloud investment, IT's focus can be spent used elsewhere.